Emmanuel Macron Gets a Lesson In Hubris

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Emmanuel Macron can’t complain about the historical figures to whom he’s been compared since his election to the Elysee Palace. From Louis XIV to Charles de Gaulle, they show how much he embodies France’s return to the global center stage after the underwhelming presidency of Francois Hollande.

But after a shining start, the golden boy of French politics has hit a rough patch. In June, he failed to achieve the meaningful reform of the euro zone that he’d advocated. His attacks on Italy’s new populist government over their handling of immigrants have smacked of hypocrisy. Most important, Macron is sliding in the polls: 59 percent of respondents to an Ifop survey last week said they disapproved of his policies.

For all the early dazzle, the president is at risk of fizzling out like another political shooting star, Italy’s former prime minister Matteo Renzi.

Despite their relative youth (Macron is 40; Renzi, 43) and their desire to transform their countries, there are of course differences between the two. The French president’s rise to power was quick, but he had a pedigree in officaldom. He was Hollande’s economic adviser and then minister of the economy. He also enjoyed a career in the civil service and business, including an investment banking stint at Rothschild. Renzi only held a couple of local government posts before becoming prime minister, most prominently as mayor of Florence.

Macron’s bid for power was in many ways bolder than Renzi’s. He set up a new party from scratch, “En Marche!,” which he guided to an extraordinary double-win in the presidential and parliamentary elections. Renzi was never brave enough to detach himself from Italy’s center-left Democratic Party and only became prime minister through a party coup.

The Frenchman has also been more imaginative in assembling a top team in Paris, as shown by his impressive picks of former political opponents as prime minister and finance minister: Edouard Philippe and Bruno Le Maire. Renzi preferred to surround himself with loyalists and regularly ditched advisers, which didn’t help his reforms.

Still, Renzi’s rapid rise and fall carries a warning for Macron. The Florentine politician achieved his own amazing triumph in the 2014 elections for European Parliament, where he helped the Democratic Party win one of the biggest vote shares ever in Italy. His grip on power seemed so tight that some thought he would run Italian politics for a decade.

Yet after a stinging defeat in a referendum on Italy’s constitution just two years later, Renzi had to quit as prime minister. In March this year, he led his party to a catastrophic failure against the right-wing League and populist Five Star Movement. He stepped down as party leader and remains unpopular with many voters.

How can Macron avoid such a quick demise? Some left-wing critics say Renzi’s problems started with a pro-market economic program, including labor-market reform. That might suggest that Macron should also rein in his centrist agenda, which includes lower wealth taxes and a jobs market overhaul.

But it’s wrong to lay all the blame on Renzi’s policies. Voters were enthused initially by his business-friendly credentials. The trouble was more to do with image than substance. He raised expectations too high and failed to match them. He became disconnected with poorer Italians, coming across as a prime minister for the rich and successful. A sense of hubris and media overexposure didn’t help.

Despite showing many similar traits, Macron may be learning. This week he gave a speech to French lawmakers that was — unusually for him — charged with humility. “Every president knows … that he can’t do everything, he won’t succeed in everything,” he said. For once, the man dubbed Zeus was channeling Aidos, the goddess of modesty and respect.

However, just as one well-received speech at the Sorbonne University didn’t remake Europe, some good lines in parliament won’t be enough to change his image. Macron will need to abandon extravagant habits, such as ordering 500,000 euros ($584,000) of china for the Elysee, and better explain how his policies can help ordinary French people. For his reforms to take hold, a Renzi-style crash to earth won’t do. He needs some of de Gaulle’s political longevity. 

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.